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You've probably heard the classic adage: "Write what you know."
Problem is, writers aren't just writers. Writers who do any kind of world building are also architects, interior designers, fashion designers, psychologists, aestheticians, stylists, set designers, city planners, etc., etc. We have to know where the hero/heroine lives, works, plays. What they wear. What they drive. And most importantly, we have to figure out a way to translate all these things into words in order to create a seamless map of our world for readers. A map they can imagine. A map they can *see.*
One of the best ways for me to do that is to see the map on my own, to have my own visual understanding of the world I'm attempting to create. Thus, I'm thinking about an adjustment to the adage. Maybe something along the lines of "Write what you see."
For me, what I "see" comes in a couple of forms of visual inspiration: (1) images that serve as literal source material, or (2) images that serve as inspiration.
The first category includes those pictures that I know you've stuffed into a folder or binder (or saved on your computer desktop)--pictures of houses, cars, monsters, outfits, hairstyles and/or pretty boys with pretty blue eyes who would make an outstanding hero down the road. Maybe you took a photograph, maybe you printed them off the web, maybe you tore them out of magazines. Either way, these are the images a writer uses to facilitate description later on.
I consider myself to be a "visual" person, so I do a lot of visual sourcing. For example, when it came to creating the architecture of the CHICAGOLAND VAMPIRES, I researched Chicago real estate, neighborhoods, architectural styles and historically important homes to figure out (1) where the vampires should live and (2) what kind of building they'd live in. There are some amazing resources out there. For the neighborhoods, you can't beat Wikipedia, which provides summaries and basic data about the the Windy City's 'hoods. In bigger cities, Google Maps offers "street view," which can give you a sense of, for example, what a character might see if they were standing on a particular corner.
For the architecture, the city of Chicago provides an entire catalog ofarchitectural landmarks online, and places like the Wheeler Mansion and Cheney Mansion have web sites with photo galleries. The web site of Chicago magazine has an outstanding "Deal Estate" section where they review luxury home sales and postings in the metro area. It was in searches like these that I found the model for Cadogan House, Kimball Mansion, which currently houses the U.S. Soccer Federation.
But what about stuff in the second category, which is a little squishier to define? These aren't just images you've stuffed into a folder, but images that serve as triggers for your writing. Images that send you to a different place, a different time, a different mindset. I'd propose that these kinds of images are JUST as important as source images. The can help you in world-building, especially when it comes to esoteric concerns (the "feel" of your world, the philosophy of your characters, the emotion of a particular scene), and they can serve as inspiration when the words are only trickling out, especially if you're a "visual" person like me.
Here are some ways to think about (and look for) both kinds of inspiration.
> Where you live
Thus far, I've lived in six cities. Nothing that I've written so far is set in those six cities, but that's not to say that parts of the cities don't make their way into the books. Even if you live in Podunkville, but want to set your manuscript in Excitotropolis, there may be discrete parts of P that could serve as appropriate visual sourcing for E. Think about (and take pictures of!):
- Architecturally interesting buildings, bridges, towers. Architecture from the WPA era, which often has tons of interesting detailing, might serve you particularly well here. And don't just think about the pretty buildings--think about the decaying ones, the peeling ones, the well-used ones.
- City parks, arboretums or trails
- Museums, mansions, birthplaces and historical sites: If you can tour it, there's probably a good chance the architecture is at least interesting.
- Public utilities. How about an old train station? A railroad depot?
- The thing that put your Podunkville on the map. Was it trains? Agriculture? Car production? Somebody famous was born there? If your Podunkville ever had a "thing," there's a good chance that there's some remnant of that "thing" around town. Trainyards. Stockyards. Manufacturing plants. Houses. Restaurants that were reviewed on a Food Network show. Check them out ( and, if the management approves) with camera in hand.
> Where you travel
Sure, it would be great if I could spend every weekend in Chicago. But that's just not feasible (which, in January and February, is probably a good thing). That also doesn't mean that "travel" has to include a road trip or plane flight to be inspirational. Pull out a map: What's within a couple hours' worth of driving? Any of the items listed above? Even if you can't spend a week solid in your "source" city, is there a building a couple of hours away that might be interesting to look at, and which might serve as inspiration for a bit of world-building down the road? How about a country road that might make for an interesting drive, and a setting for a Regency romance or countryside chase scene?
> Where you write
I'll admit it--I'm currently pre-move, so my "office" is the couch, laptop in hand. But once I'm settled in, I'm hoping I can fashion a space that's organized, clutter-free, and contains some nice bits of visual inspiration to keep the word count moving.
Or, maybe, where everything is organized by color. 'Cause that's just kinda fabulous.
Think about it this way: if artists and designers can have lovely, well-organized studios, why can't writers?
If you're looking for a bit of inspiration, Ali Edwards is a favorite of mine in terms of office organization. As a scrapbooker, she has lots of little supplies and bits here and there. But she's managed to create astreamlined office dotted with beautiful bits of design. Her typography print and inspiration bulletin board are particularly nice.
> The Internet
Now that the Interwebs put millions of facts at your fingertips, it's easier than ever to research, to browse, to become familiar with new people, new places, new things, new trends. In terms of the visual, you can peruse stock photographs check out headshots for heroes and heroines and shop for handmade prints and other design elements.
I've got a lengthy list of style mavens and designers whose work--whether in calligraphy or photography--I find particularly inspiring. But in case you need a design fix--a little visual inspiration to get you hooked into the best of Interweb style scouts--here are some lovelies: The City Sage, Design*Sponge, Abbey Goes Design Scouting,Bloomalicious,The Sartorialist, The Style Files
> Putting it all together
- Inspiration Boards and the CONTEST!!!
Alright. So you've clipped, printed, downloaded or photographed a pile (or folder) of images. Now what?
Well, you have LOTS of options. Electronic source material can be organized in computer folders or by using photo software like iPhoto, and paper material can be arranged in gorgeous binders, accordion files, folios or presentation binders.
The problem is, if you're anything like me, you end up with LOTS of images stuffed in a folder that you completely forget about, however helpful they might be. If that's the way you work, I propose it's time to think about a different way of seeing. A different way of visualizing. And that's where we come to inspiration boards.
I was very fortunate to come across The City Sage one day during my Interweb travels. Anne blogs about gorgeous style and design, but she also creates electronic inspiration boards. Utilizing Adobe InDesign, Anne creates mosaic images intended to inspire--inspiration for color, style, emotion and theme.